Here’s an idea if you ever decide to play a sadistic but entertaining prank to humble your precocious young nephew. I’m not saying I’ve done it (my sister might read this), but if I did, this is how I would:
Start by supplying him with an innocuous “spot the difference” challenge that he can easily conquer. The two pictures should have several obvious differences. Then you hand him one where the differences are more subtle, and take longer to notice. Then, once his confidence is primed, you raise the stakes with an incentive of a sugary reward, say, one M&M per difference he spots. When he greedily accepts, you hand him two pictures that unbeknown to him are actually identical, and then leave him to stew in his frustration.
Just be sure the photocopy you use is of high quality. In my
experience estimation, a determined enough youngster will exploit the minutest discrepancies in the print-quality to garnish his chocolaty bounty.
It doesn’t take a preternatural eye for detail to spot the differences between Israel and the Church. And yet, many Christians ignore the clear distinction in favor of an emphasis on a vague similitude.
Perhaps you’ve heard it phrased this way: “The Church has replaced Israel as the recipient of God’s covenants,” or more bluntly “The Church is the New Israel.”
What I am arguing is that the Church has not replaced Israel and is not the modern day recipient of the blessings made to Israel. Promises made to Israel (e.g. land, cursing such as exile for disobedience, and restoration after repentance), are not now promises to the Church because Israel 1.0 has been replaced by a new Israel 2.0 like an old operating system that gets deleted to make room for a new one.
Wave pools and Sand boxes
If you’re Googling this topic, its technical name is the continuity/discontinuity debate. Continuity/discontinuity is a spectrum, much the way light is. On the one side we have a very “flowing” wave-like nature. In that view Israel’s promises flow easily to the Church.
In that wave-pool they sing “Father Abraham had many sons, … I am one of them and so are you” (irrespective of your ethnicity, as long as you have faith you are an Israelite). And when they read verses where God makes positive promises to Israel, those promises are transferable to the Christian Church.
Israel, the Church, and the promises of blessing are all fungible pieces that click in any combination. Remove Israel, click in the Church and the same promises can be claimed. Although for some reason the promises of cursing only click with Israel and do not apply to the Church.
For example Jeremiah 29:11-13 “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.”
Continuity says, “Yay! God knows the plans he has for me and they are good, because that’s what Jeremiah said to the people of God, and we in the Church are now the people of God.”
On the other end of the spectrum however, we have the more grainy, particle-nature of discontinuity. In this sandbox of discontinuity, the promises of God are seen as applying only to those to whom God made the promises, and to no one else. So they don’t sing much about Abraham.
In the discontinuity sandbox verses about the plans God has for Israel are kept in immediate context. So they will read the verses above and below the Jeremiah 29 promise that you’ve seen embroidered on throw cushions:
“For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, …
…and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. … your kinsmen who did not go out with you into exile: ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, behold, I am sending on them sword, famine, and pestilence, and I will make them like vile figs that are so rotten they cannot be eaten.”
And then the famous verses 11 – 13 will have meaning for Israel only.
Your hermeneutic will determine where you land on this spectrum. The more you tend towards a grammatical-historical hermeneutic the more you will read the verses in their context with applicability to Israel only. The less you adhere to this principle the more likely you are to mix and match Israel and the Church.
Spot the differences
So what are some of the obvious differences between Israel and the Church? I’m glad you asked…
Israel is a nation, but the Church is made up of people from all nations. This means Israelites are ethnically related to Abraham, while Christians may or may not be genetically descended from Abraham.
Israel’s worship was centralized—to be an Israelite you had to live in Israel and worship in Jerusalem, but the Church is decentralized, so you can live anywhere and worship anywhere (John 4).
Israel consisted of anyone born into the nation, whether they were faithful, believing worshippers of God, or not, but the Church consists of only believers.
Why does it matter?
Where you are on this spectrum will determine much of your understanding of the Old Testament. It will determine how you interpret and apply promises of blessing and cursing made to Israel (do you claim the promises as your own?), the applicability of laws given to Israel and even eschatology. Very significantly, it affects your view of baptism.
Logically, the more you favor the continuity approach, the more you will favor infant baptism, because to be in Israel you were born into the “covenant community” of believers and unbelievers who lived under the umbrella of the covenants and took a sign of the covenant (originally circumcision) to show that. You are now likely to consider the baptism of babies born to Christian parents as a continuation of the sign of being in the covenant community.
However, if you favor discontinuity, you will see members of the new body, not as born into the community, but as joining the community only when they trust in Jesus, irrespective of their parents’ standing with God. The sign of this is baptism by immersion as a believer as commanded to the Church in the New Testament.
Wherever you are on this spectrum though, always remember the most important similarity….our faith in Jesus, the one sent into this world to die our death, to take the punishment for our sins and who will one day present us perfect to his Father.